When Grass Feeds on Sheep
From Delaware to Alabama this past summer, a previous unknown captured headlines and took center stage on six o'clock news broadcasts. The reviews, however, were far from complimentary. Many dubbed the upstart "the cell from hell."
Known to scientists as Pfiesteria (feast-eer-ee-ah) piscicida (Latin for "fish killer"), the microscopic organism was demonstrating its propensity for turning rivers and estuaries into death traps for immense schools of fish. Pfiesteria's powerful nerve poison was also being blamed as the likely cause for sickening scores of fishermen, coastal residents and tourists. Pfiesteria leaves fish and people with ugly lesions. Human contact can also result in memory loss, dizziness, fatigue and asthmatic problems.
Seven years after being first identified by North Carolina State University (NCSU) aquatic botanist JoAnn Burkholder, Pfiesteria remains today largely an enigma. What is known, says Burkholder, is that we are dealing with a vicious and mysterious microorganism that can masquerade as a plant, lie dormant for years and undergo at least 24 changes in its life cycle. Pfiesteria is also decidedly predacious, a first among dinoflagellates, the family of typically placid single-cell phytoplankton to which it belongs. Because of its bizarre knack for hunting down fish, some call Pfiesteria the "T-Rex of the dinoflagellates." Others liken its inexplicably aggressive behavior "to grass feeding on sheep."
There's at least one other thing that's well-understood about Pfiesteria: it is most at home and multiplies tremendously in polluted, over-enriched waters.
Burkholder believes that Pfiesteria has always dwelled in coastal North Carolina but that something in the past decade has altered the natural ecology there to foster its growth. In early 1995, Burkholder uncovered what she believed that "something" was. That's when she read "Boss Hog," a Pulitzer prize-winning exposť in Raleigh's News and Observer. In just a few short years, the newspaper revealed, a virtual revolution has transpired in eastern North Carolinawhere once there were only hog hamlets, now there are pork metropolises disposing of millions of tons of putrid waste. The implications for water quality are mind-boggling.
The first paragraph of "Boss Hog" made such an impression on Burkholder that she can recite it from memory: "Imagine a city as big as New York suddenly grafted onto North Carolina's Coastal Plain. Double it. Now imagine that this city has no sewage treatment plants. All the wastes from 15 million people are simply flushed into open pits and sprayed onto fields. Turn those humans into hogs, and you don't have to imagine at all. It's already here."
At conferences, Burkholder heard how pollution was proving responsible for the ominous appearance worldwide of previously unknown organisms and others once considered harmless. She became convinced that Pfiesteria was an indicator of the harm done to North Carolina's waters, and perhaps a harbinger of further ecological breakdown ahead.
But Burkholder's findings went largely ignored. In fact, her research, her credentials and even her outspokenness were openly challenged by government officials whose job was to safeguard environmental and public health. For years, these officials, perhaps acting to protect North Carolina's powerful agricultural industry, refused to accept even the existence of Pfiesteria. Yet, about 140 North Carolina physicians have petitioned Vice President Al Gore for federal help in dealing with Pfiesteria.
In August 1997, North Carolina's legislature finally acted, imposing a two-year moratorium on new corporate hog farms and tougher limits on existing operations. But given the state's dismal track record, one wonders if the new regulations will be enforced. What will happen after two years? Is the hog already out of the barn, and the damage irreparable? For now, says JoAnn Burkholder, "Pfiesteria hopes the state continues with business as usual. It's doing just fine, thank you."Too Much Manure to Endure
The good news for Pfiesteria and perhaps other yet-to-be discovered pathogens is thisfactory farms like those in North Carolina are proliferating nationwide, churning out mountains of animal waste, largely unregulated.
US rivers and streams are carrying ever-larger volumes of nutrient pollutionthe biggest single source of which, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, is livestock waste. Little surprise then that most of the nation's 127 estuaries show symptoms of nutrient overload. This past summer, the once prolific Chesapeake Bay played host to a Pfiesteria rampage that claimed tens of thousands of fish, closed rivers and sickened dozens of people. What caused the outbreak? Many scientists suspect fowl playthe 600 million factory farm chickens raised around the Bay. According to the Baltimore Sun, these birds generate 658,000 tons of manure annually"enough to lay a yard-wide, foot-high swath from Salisbury [MD] to Salt Lake City."
Another traditionally rich aquatic environment now imperiled by livestock waste and fertilizer runoff is the Gulf of Mexico. Off Louisiana, researchers are studying the infamous Dead Zone, a lifeless expanse currently the size of Connecticut. Excessive nutrients pouring into the Mississippi River from factory farms and other so-called non-point sources spawn algae blooms which strip the waters of oxygen as they decompose, with fatal consequences for many Gulf denizens. Alarmingly, the Dead Zone has been growing steadily larger throughout recent decades.
Even the nose-wrinkling gaseous emissions from factory farms can pollute waterways. That's because the ammonia gas released by manure routinely returns to earth as acid rain. In Northern Europe, acid precipitation tied to ammonia emissions from hog farms is the agricultural community's top environmental concern.Pandora's Feedlot
Of Lagoons, Leaks and Loopholes
While diversified farmers see manure as a resource, for factory farm operators it's a waste disposal nightmare. Factory farms have two principal ways to handle waste: store it in massive earthen pits called lagoons until it decomposes; or spread it onto fields.
Lagoons, some covering 12 acres, are prone both to leaking and breaking. In 1995, spills in North Carolina discharged more than 40 million gallons of unmentionables into state waterways, about double the amount of oil lost by the Exxon Valdez. Meanwhile in Missouri, spills left more fish belly-up "than had been killed in the previous ten years by ALL agricultural operations," says Ken Midkiff, Director of the Missouri Chapter of the Sierra Club.
Even when their banks hold, roughly half of North Carolina's lagoons built before 1993 (which is most of them) are leaking, say researchers at NCSU. A 1995 survey revealed that hundreds of lagoons were badly eroded and in danger of leaking or collapsing, and that 122 operators were deliberately and illegally dumping manure into North Carolina's waters.
What about field spraying? Many areas (including three entire European countriesthe Netherlands, France and Belgium) already produce more waste than available land can absorb. This limitation apparently doesn't deter farm operators. St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Bill Lambrecht found that with a million tons of poultry manure piling up each year in Missouri, much of it gets spread on fields that don't need it, a practice that "looks suspiciously like dumping."
All of which spells trouble for drinking water. A test of wells in eastern North Carolina found that almost 10 percent were so contaminated with hog waste that the water was unsafe to drink. In 1996, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that three Indiana women who miscarried a total of six times within two years may have been sickened by well water polluted by a neighboring hog farm.
How do factory farms get away with it? In at least several states, there's evidence of a lack of willingness to hold factory farms accountable.
The News and Observer learned that North Carolina's "anti-pollution cop has neither the staff nor the will to get the job done." In Missouri, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports, "Few regulations govern chicken waste, and those that do have loopholes big enough to drive manure trucks through." In Kansas, the Wichita Eagle wrote that residents opposed to corporate pork producers have found that the state legislature is purposely keeping understaffed the agency responsible for overseeing pollution from factory farms. The legislature also has exempted factory farms from environmental rules that cities and other corporations must follow.
In the end, bird-dogging the animal factories is left to ordinary citizens. Albert Midoux, a retired USDA poultry inspector, patrols country roads in Missouri trying to catch improper manure spreading. "This land is being pushed to the brink of disaster," he says. "I hope it's not too late."Is the Price Right? The Errant Quest for Greater Output
Factory farms and their attendant environmental ills are products of an agricultural revolution that has in the past five decades relentlessly sought out cheaper and cheaper ways to produce more and more food. Factory farms were conceived with the express purpose of producing the most meat, milk and eggs as quickly and cheaply as possible, in the smallest amount of space possible with as little labor as possible.
In this pursuit, animals are treated as simple units of production, and are physically and genetically manipulated to accelerate and maximize yield. Turkeys are now so top-heavy they can hardly stand. Pigs are too long to support their own weight. Chickens have their beaks seared off with hot blades so they don't slay their cage-mates. Dairy cows are impregnated repeatedly to keep the milk flowing. To stave off illness and hasten growth, animals are dosed with a pharmacopoeia of drugs.
The single-minded pursuit of production has also radically altered America's social geography. Since World War II, the number of American farms has shriveled from roughly six million mostly small and medium size farms to fewer than two million.Farm Tailspin
What's it like when a factory farm or two moves into the neighborhood? "I just came back from three days of driving the back roads and talking with local residents in McDonald County, Missouri, where there are 13.2 million chickens on any given day," says Midkiff. "The empirical evidence is therewells are polluted, streams are polluted, and life is increasingly miserable for people who have lived their whole lives in that area."
Faced with the prospect of eye-searing stench, clouds of flies, tainted drinking water and, at best, mixed economic impacts, in most places, factory farms have triggered grassroots opposition. Family farmers have banded together and formed coalitions with environmental groups to repel factory farms and to push for legislation to minimize the impact of existing operations. (Incidentally, in 1997, the National Pork Producers Council returned more than $50,000 in farmer check-off funds which it had used illegally to monitor family farm organizations actively opposed to corporate hog operations.)
Of late, corporate hog farms have been moving further west, to the sparsely populated outbacks of Kansas, Texas, Colorado, Utah, Oklahoma and Wyoming. "The industry that has left a trail of pollution and lawsuits in North Carolina, Missouri and Iowa is heading to the High Plains in search of isolation, a break from environmental scrutiny and a welcome from small towns seeking jobs of any kind," reports the Wichita Eagle.
While the westward migration has pleased a few economically depressed towns, most are split. Many are concerned that mega-pork operationswhich can lap up millions of gallons of water a daymight simultaneously drain and contaminate the Ogallala Aquifer, the already depleted underground lake that is the sole source of water for much of the western Great Plains.
Citizens are understandably concerned about the abiding stench from hog farms (described as a penetrating mix of rotten eggs and ammonia) and the effect on both property values and health. One researcher found that North Carolinians residing near hog operations experience "more tension, more depression, more anger, less vigor, more fatigue and more confusion" than those not exposed to hog odor.
Yet others worry about the social repercussions. After studying the burgeoning hog industry, Iowa researchers concluded, "[Iowans] might do well to listen to the people of North Carolina and the price they've paid in environmental quality, alienation from government, eroding tax bases, lost employment, and most importantly the erosion of community and neighborhood spirit."
In the Show Me state, the Missouri Rural Crisis Center has been educating Missourians about these and other side effects of factory farming. "They no longer believe," says Executive Director Roger Allison, "that putting thousands of animals in one building with no fresh air, sunshine or room to move around, pumping them full of antibiotics and other chemicals, digging a big hole the size of several football fields and 25 foot deep and flushing it full of millions of gallons of feces, urine and chemicals is 'state of the art.'"
The stakes couldn't be higher. "The single most important issue in agriculture today is industrialization," Allison says. "We know the industrialization of hogs is where the battle has to be fought over the future of agriculture in our country. Do we want factory farms or family farms?"Milford, Utah
The high desert town of Milford, Utah, is home to 1,164 residents and what will be the country's largest hog farm. Circle Four Farms currently raises an unprecedented 600,000 hogs. Plans are to have 1-2 million. A gagging stench from 80 lagoons is a regular reminder of the farm's presence. The operation presently generates as much waste as a city of 1.8 million people. There are only two million residents in all of Utah.
Among the operation's detractors are some 50 farm families who accuse the company of employing the same political tactics and environmentally questionable techniques that caused North Carolina to slap a moratorium on corporate hog farming. In 1996, farm operators waited six weeks to notify the state of a spill of 80,000 gallons of hog waste. "It's like the devil came to Milford," says alfalfa farmer Joey Leko. "This has split this community right down the middle."
Circle Four has supporters, including Mayor Mary Wiseman. "They've been a godsend," she says. "This town was dying." Patty Cherry, a waitress at the all-night Hong Kong Cafe, says three of her daughters and their husbands work on the farm. "My family is together because of that farm. It seems to me that's a fair trade for a little smell."Factory Farming and a Food Chain Gone Haywire
From the outset, domesticating animals exposed humans to the microbes they carry and created better conditions for the microbes themselves. The advent of factory farming, however, has turned a tricky situation into a very sticky one. More and more medical authorities are linking the startling changes in how food is produced to the emergence of a growing family of foodborne pathogens.
Although a ban was recently imposed on feeding cattle remains back to cows in the US, farmers here still routinely feed livestock rendered animal remains.
What's transpiring on factory farms is clearly heightening the likelihood that food will reach consumers somehow tainted. The US government recently announced that more than 99 percent of chickens bear detectable levels of generic E. coli while 70-90 percent carry Campylobacter (the leading cause of foodborne infections), up from 30-70 percent only six years earlier. In June 1997, a Nebraska company recalled 25 million pounds of beef feared to contain E. coli O157:H7. This was the largest recall of bacterially contaminated meat ever.
As contaminants abound, foodborne illness reaches staggering dimensions. Officially there are an estimated 81 million cases per year. However in 1994, the CDC's Dr. Morris Potter suggested in the Harvard Health Letter that it's probable that every American experiences at least one bout of food poisoning annually, which would make the total more than 266 million cases per year.
The situation gives every indication of spiraling out of control. And given the remarkable speed with which pathogens adapt to new technologies and drugs, the prospects for reversing this tide seem dim, short of revolutionizing the entire system with food safety and environmental health in mind.Manure and You
The overproduction and mismanagement of animal wastes may well be at the root of many of our problems with emerging pathogens. Animal waste, which carries most foodborne pathogens, can even contaminate plant foodsin the field, by the water supply, during transportation, in storage or in the kitchen. The CDC's Robert Tauxe has concluded that controlling foodborne disease is going to require focusing on controlling animal waste.Animal Drugs and Super Bugs
Factory farms house tremendous numbers of genetically similar animals in close quarters, a practice which necessitates the continuing use of antibiotics. Now the bugs are biting back. Antibiotic use in farm animals (which accounts for at least half of all antibiotic use) has significantly accelerated the appearance of foodborne pathogens that are unfazed by most antibiotics. One such drug-resistant "super bug" discovered in Great Britain not only resists the potent anti-microbial drug vancomycin, it feeds on it!
Another emerging super bug is a strain of Salmonella called DT104. Found in meat products, particularly beef, DT104 can cause severe cases of food poisoning, frequently requiring hospitalization. DT104 is resistant to many antibiotics and apparently develops additional resistance very quickly. According to CDC epidemiologist Frederick Angulo, "What DT104 is calling for is a more comprehensive understanding that foodborne illness starts on the farm. Stopping it will require a paradigm shift, a re-evaluation of everything [including] the massive use of antibiotics in animal feed."
Drug-resistant bacteria are already complicating the treatment of numerous bacterial infections including pneumonia, which kills 78,000 Americans each year. "These developments," says the American Society for Microbiology, "amount to an incipient public health emergency, albeit one that is poorly appreciated or recognized."
Factory farming is so new, we are only beginning to fully understand its long-term effects on our world. What we've witnessed to date leaves scant room for optimism. Rapid industrialization of food production has contorted the face of agriculture, withered rural America, undermined ecological systems and jeopardized public health on an unprecedented scale.
While industrialization's proponents claim credit for cheap and plentiful food, consideration of the range of hidden costsfrom drug-resistant "super bugs" to Pfiesteria-riddled estuariesmakes cheap begin to look dearly expensive.
The good news is that there's nothing inevitable about the direction that agriculture is moving.
Michael Allaby and Floyd Allen questioned where agriculture was headed in 1974 in Robots Behind the Plow (Rodale, 1974). "No one has so far explained why big units are better for society, or why a system based on small units would not produce and distribute food just as effectively as big agriculture, and without such an abrasive effect on the ecology, on communities, cultures, people and the quality of food."
A revolution in the way we think about food and farming is sorely needednot one promoting "revolutionary" technologies like irradiation and genetic engineering, but a truly fresh approach.
"What seems clear," says Nicols Fox in Spoiled, "is that the cure must be as systemic as the cause, and it must involve a new consumer consciousness, a new caring about food that goes beyond the superficialities of transitory taste sensations to the very nature of food and how it is produced."
What's called for, many are convinced, is a sustainable family farm agriculture that is environmentally, economically and socially responsible. "Food can restore communities culturally, socially and economically when small, local producers are supported," concludes Fox. "When we reestablish a direct relationship with food, we can take back into our hands the power to make it safer. But we will first have to reject the powerful creed of an industrialized model. Healthy farms, healthy animals, healthy communities, healthy families and healthy bodies may not be exemplars of efficiency, but common sense says they are the more important values for long-term survival."What You Can Do